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Witness Review of Palace Malice

Wednesday June 20 2007

Margaret Von Klemperer

A new children’s book about a very rich, very nasty, very greedy human being is on the shelves. Palace Malice is written by Donald Woodburn – his fourth book for children – and illustrated by a new collaborator, 17 year old Robin Date from Pietermaritzburg. Woodburn is also originally from the city.

Woodburn’s first book, All the People of the World, came out in 2004. Illustrated by Catherine Feek, it aimed to introduce children to the idea of variety, of how many different people there are around the world and the different lives they lead. This was followed a year later by Thandi Counts to Ten, a counting book that also celebrates South Africa. Again Feek (now Falconer) was the illustrator.

His third book, He Sneezed on Me, came out in 2006 and was illustrated by Greg King , the Durban-based actor, director and designer and co-founder of the KickstArt Theatre Company. King and Woodburn have known each other since they were at Maritzburg College together. The gloriously yucky subject matter has struck a chord with children and school librarians alike, and it has been Woodburn’s most popular book up until now.

Now, for the new book, Woodburn has found another illustrator in Robin Date. He met her through her mother – also an artist – who goes to the same chiropractor as Woodburn, and when they met, Date was just 15. She wants to be an illustrator and the meeting offered her a chance to show Woodburn what she can do.

“She showed me her portfolio – it’s deviant art, dark cartooning,” says Woodburn. “That’s what interested me. The character in Palace Malice is not very nice, and I was attracted to that dark element in her work.”


There is a wonderful scene where the villain is about to have an unpleasant encounter with a crocodile, and Date’s illustration shows her chubby legs and pink-and-white knickers dangling in the water and about to come to a nasty end. Both author and illustrator agree that children who love Harry Potter are keen to have something with a slightly dark edge to it, just as they love the gross-out humour of He Sneezed on Me.

The idea for the unpleasant rich villain came to Woodburn when he was driving his Toyota Conquest in Johannesburg. “People kept pushing me off the road because their BMWs were bigger than my Conquest,” he says.

So the book, besides being funny and colourful, is a comment on the kind of attitude he dislikes.

Woodburn publishes and markets his books himself, following what he describes as a bad experience with publishers. The market for local children’s books is small and all he got when he submitted his work was negative feedback, and stories that publishers would never be able to sell more than a hundred copies. But by putting the effort in and going to schools with the books o talk to the Grade 3 to Grade 7 age group, he has managed to sell nearly 800 copies of All the People of the World, and 350 copies of He Sneezed on Me since last September.

Woodburn has worked as an actor and from 1997 to 2001 he was head of Voice at the South African School of Film and Drama (now known as AFDA).

Palace Malice is available at local bookstores, including Exclusive Books and Adams.

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